The National Election Committee reacted on Wednesday to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s creation of a leaflet urging an election boycott, warning that any distribution of the flier would be against the law, while a former opposition member said that he and other supporters would spread the message nonetheless if the CNRP is not reinstated.
Rainsy first began calling for a boycott of this year’s national elections in April, as a response to last year’s forced dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which he helped found. Co-founder Kem Sokha, who had succeeded Rainsy as party president, is currently in pre-trial detention on “treason” charges after his arrest in September.
He released a version of a leaflet reiterating the stance on Tuesday, which Som Sorida, deputy secretary-general of the NEC, claimed violated both Article 34 of the Constitution and Article 142 of the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly.
“Our first measure is we will submit a letter to the one who did this [ordering] to stop his activity immediately. If he does not stop, we will file a complaint to authorities to take legal action,” said Sorida.
While Article 34 guarantees the right to vote, it says nothing about the legality of boycotting an election, or of urging others to do so. Article 142, meanwhile, says it is illegal to “deter” citizens from registering to vote, or to cause “confusion resulting in the loss of confidence in the election”.
Sorida said that legal action will be taken against Rainsy and anybody who distributes the leaflets, both in person and online.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said it was up to the Ministry of Interior to decide whether or not to take action, as requested by the NEC. Interior Ministry representatives could not be reached.
Siphan did say, however, that Rainsy’s actions were akin to “rebellion”, and compared them to the Khmer Rouge’s boycott of the 1993 election.
“It’s freedom of expression, but urging people not to join elections offends the principle of democracy,” he said, claiming that preserving democracy took precedence over Rainsy’s individual rights in this scenario.
Passing out anti-government leaflets has been a risky business in the past, with 10 Khmer National Liberation Front supporters arrested in 2014 for distributing pamphlets during a peaceful protest.
At least two CNRP supporters were also arrested for distributing leaflets protesting the party’s dissolution.
Rainsy stopped short on Tuesday of explicitly asking followers to distribute the leaflets in person, saying that it must depend on “local conditions and circumstances”.
“The leaflet is already being widely shared on Facebook,” he said on Wednesday, adding that he and his colleagues will “defend our freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution”.
Kong Mas, former head of the CNRP’s Svay Rieng provincial committee, said in a Wednesday Facebook post that he would print 100,000 copies of the flier.
Mas, who was expected to compete for a lawmaker position in July, fled to Bangkok following the party’s dissolution, returning after reporting intimidation and harassment from Thai officials.
“They threaten us not to share the leaflet. If we talk about rights, we have the right to do so on behalf of the people,” Mas said, adding that they are not trying to prevent CPP supporters from voting.
Mas said he and others still loyal to the CNRP will print leaflets in every province if the CNRP is not reinstated by the end of the party registration period on May 14.
When asked if he feared arrest, he said the sacrifices of other “patriots” would be meaningless if he too weren’t willing to take risks.
“We must face [them] with the truth,” he said.